WHY CELEBRATE NATIVE PLANTS? Nurseryman and naturalist Andy Brand offers many reasons, including this one: butterflies. As manager of Broken Arrow rare-plant nursery and founder of the Connecticut Butterfly Society, Andy has intimate insights into whether native species, in particular, really work—as in, work for pollinators, birds and other species in a particular habitat.
On my radio show and podcast, we talked about why having extra-early and extra-later bloomers—from spicebush to Clethra to goldenrods and more—mean important insects and even birds will choose not just to stop by your garden, but call it home and raise a family.
Read along as you listen to the May 11, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
read/listen: choosing native plants,
a q&a with broken arrow’s andy brand
Q. I know that when the subject of native plants is raised, people think you must get in one camp or the other. Many garden plants—think hostas—are non-natives. Though you and I both grow natives and non-natives together in our gardens, Andy, we don’t want to grow thugs—damaging, dangerous, invasive plants.
A. Exactly. At the garden clubs I’ve visited lately, there seems to be a tendency when they hear that a plant is not from this country, to assume that there will be a problem with that particular plant—if it’s from Asia, or Europe.
That isn’t necessarily the case. There are many wonderful plants that are not native to the United States that are not of detriment to the environment, and in many cases can be of great benefit.
Q. We have to make our decisions carefully, whatever plants we choose. Natives do have one advantage in particular—that they have a special co-evolved relationship with the other creatures in the habitat.
A. That’s what I have really come to love about natives, because of my love for insects, and butterflies. For the past 30 years or so, I’ve been watching these relationships that insects and birds and other wildlife have with our native flora and fauna. Those relationships are incredible, and often very fascinating, and that’s part of what I lecture about: to showcase some of those relationships.
Q. How do we even define native? I’m in Copake Falls, New York, and you’re in Hamden, Connecticut—and someone else might be in Tuscaloosa or Newark. So for instance, I have three or four old specimens of Aesculus parviflora, the bottlebrush buckeye. I love this plant; the pollinators seems to love this plant, and it even has pods with nuts in them that some small mammals seem to eat.
Now, it’s a native American plant [from the Southeast]—but it’s not native to my town at all. [Above: Bottlebrush buckeye bloom with silver spotted skipper in Margaret’s garden.]
A. This is another big debate. Some people are strict that plants they put in their yard must be native to within 100 miles; or strictly [if they live where we do] from New England; or the Northeast. And some people just include North America. It depends on the individual.
Q. So enough for the politics I said we wouldn’t talk about. [Laughter.]
One reason to grow natives is about the intimate, intricate and fascinating relationships with other creatures that you’ve been talking about. Some specific examples you continue to be wowed by?
A. One great example and one of my favorite shrubs that’s wrapping up flowering right now: spicebush, Lindera benzoin. It’s one of the earliest shrubs to flower in the lowland, damp, wetland areas. The whole understory comes alive with this yellowish color [above, in Margaret’s garden]. It’s one of the main food plants for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly [photo above].
Q. So it has early pollen for some early awakening pollinators; it’s a larval food source for certain butterflies…
A. …and it’s the most incredible caterpillar anyone’s going to see. When I show a slide of it, everyone gasps. It’s this 2-inch lime green caterpillar with these big false eyespots above its head, and very menacing looking. If people have spicebush in their yards, I almost guarantee them they will have spicebush swallowtails later, after the females lay eggs on it.
Those females will find it. It’s something very important to remember when you are planting native plants for butterflies and other insects: Many of these butterflies are very host-specific; they don’t just fly around and come to a leaf and lay their eggs. They’re very specific, what they will lay their eggs on; some of them even down to one particular plant.
Q. And that’s another reason to include them in our landscapes—to add to the diversity, the choices.
A. And to keep the insects in your yard—not just for a nectar source, a rest area where they have some food and then keep moving, but so they can stick around and set up their homes and stay there.
There are so many great native plants like this. One is Clethra alnifolia, sweet pepperbush or summersweet. That’s a fantastic nectar source not just for butterflies but for a whole range of insects later in the summer, August into September here in the Northeast, for example.
Q. There are other Clethra species, not just alnifolia but also more treelike C. barbinervis…
A. …and that’s an Asian species. And then there’s another one I’ll call native, C. acuminata—not native to the Northeast, but to the United States [the Appalachian region of the Southeast], and it has wonderful cinnamon bark.
Many selections have been made of Clethra alnifolia.
Q. That’s our Northeastern species, yes?
A. You’ll find it along roadsides and wetland areas in the Northeast. It runs by stolons, so it will form a big colony, with sweet, fragrant flowers typically white color. It’s a fantastic plant; it gets great yellow fall color, so it’s an aesthetically pleasing plant as well.
Q. You just mentioned wet. So it’s a plant that can take a tough spot—not tough as in dry, but wet.
A. You can plant it in your average garden soil, and it will be perfectly happy there, but if you were taking a hike you’ll see it along stream edges and pond edges, where it’s doing fine. It’s adaptable to many types of soils. In part shade it still flowers; in full sun it’s great, too.
It’s one of the best ones I think for later summer—and that’s a nice thing, too, to include plants for later in the season, when many shrubs are not in flower.
Q. A number of leaders in the native-plant or ecological-minded landscaping world have said to me to think like this: It’s simple; just have something in bloom, providing pollen or nectar, as many months of the year as you can. That’s kind of a good goal, without getting too scientific, but providing this extended interaction with pollinators, birds, and so on.
And it also stretches your garden season—which is the bonus, right?
A. For me, the aesthetics is kind of on top of the other benefits to the environment we’re doing by planting native.
Q. There are unusual forms of Clethra, too.
A. There are some with pink flowers, including ‘Ruby Spice,’ which we introduced at Broken Arrow several years ago. It’s a nice rich pink, with dark green leaves. It was found on a light pink variation in the field at the nursery.
There are some variegated forms available, for people who like variegation—like yellow and green variegation…
Q. And of course you and I don’t like variegation, Andy. [Laughter.]
A. No, not at all.
If you have a smaller yard and you can’t use regular Clethra alnifolia, which gets 6-8 feet tall or larger, there is one called ‘Sixteen Candles’ that’s a great form that only reaches 4 feet tall. It’s very prolific in flowering, with nice white flowers.
Q. What about some native herbaceous favorites? The last few years I’ve changed the mowing pattern on the hill up above my house, and left an amoebic-shaped area unmown [above, in fall]. Once a year, in May, I mow it to rake off the debris, but it’s got lots of things going on—some non-native and some native, like little bluestem grass and more.
One thing I have been interested in is watching some of the goldenrod species come in, and how much action happens around them.
A. I agree. Solidago is one of the best—and again, we’re late in the season when it flowers. The number of species that Solidago attracts is incredible.
It’s unfortunate that Solidago has had such a bad rap because of its association with hay fever and allergies, because it flowers at the same time as ragweed, which is what causes people’s eyes to itch and noses to run.
Q. The goldenrod pollen is too heavy to blow around in the wind the way the ragweed pollen does. So it’s not the allergen people think it is.
I will say it can be kind of thuggish—when it finds a place it wants to be, it wants to take over some turf.
A. You have to be careful if you’re going to plant some species of goldenrod in your yard. Some are thuggish and will run rampant and take over a garden in no time, or a field. There are some species that are clump-forming or at least more restrained more appropriate for garden settings.
Q. Restrained: I like that; it’s a good word.
A. They’re not as out-of-control as other species. They flower for a long time, and they attract everything from butterflies and beetles to bees and flies—I think it’s one of the top herbaceous plants for attracting insects.
Q. I don’t think I ever planted a cultivated variety of goldenrod in my long gardening adventure. But I’m watching them come in to this funny little mowing experiment. I can walk up there in the second part of the summer, and though it’s just 20 feet away—not 12 miles—the sound is different from in the backyard just below. Everyone is literally abuzz.
A. I agree. If you can get away from road noise and kneel down in a patch of goldenrod, it is incredibly alive.
Q. So again we’re stretching the blooming time—from spicebush in April here in Zone 5B, and now we’re talking about something that in September is providing nourishment.
A. One butterfly that really looks for late-season nectar is the monarch—plants that flower in October and even early November. They need all the energy, as much as they can take in, from things like goldenrod and Joe-pye weed [above] and asters as they migrate those thousands of miles to overwinter.
Anything we can do to help them out. As many people are aware, their populations have really crashed lately.
Q. And there are butterfly weeds that they have a host-specific relationship with.
A. We could do a whole show on the milkweeds or butterfly weeds, the Asclepias. It’s an incredible group of herbaceous plants as well, fantastic nectar sources, and the food source for the monarch caterpillar.
Q. What about native favorites tree-wise? Let’s go all the way up to the canopy.
A. The oaks, for instance—or one of my favorites tree-wise is quaking aspen. A lot of the plants I lecture about are from my own observations in my own yard, which is reverting back to forest. I’ve spent 25 years observing the plants, and the insects, and quaking aspen is one tree I have really come to love, along with native species of black cherry, Prunus serotina. It’s a great tree species for insects, and for birds.
The fruit on Prunus–if you ever park your car underneath when the fruit are ripe…
Q. Oops! [Laughter.]
A. …your car will be covered with purple, like it’s been shot with a paint gun.
Q. Aralia, too—I have a big stand of A. spinosa, a spiny, imposing thing—I don’t know if it’s a large shrub or a small tree.
A. And it has lovely fruit clusters [purple, above], and the birds—especially bluebirds—devour them.
Q. And oh, boy—don’t put them near pavement or your car.
So the quaking aspen—is that a poplar?
A. It is [Populus tremuloides], and it probably needs a field environment, because it forms a large colony with many stems. The one species I see using it regularly is the viceroy butterfly, the butterfly that mimics the monarch in coloration. I frequently see females laying their eggs on the poplar leaves, and I find caterpillars on them. The little caterpillars actually overwinter in a tiny leaf piece that they fasten to the small poplar trees and spend the winter there.
Q. They tuck themselves in?
A. They make a little sleeping bag, called a hibernaculum, that remains attached to the young trees. They spend the winter about a quarter- to a half-inch long in that hibernaculum till the leaves start growing again, and they hatch and continue their metamorphosis.
Q. Hibernaculum: word of the day. [Laughter.]
Now you and I have something in common besides an obsession with variegated plants, which is that we weed and do good garden maintenance, but there are some things that we don’t weed out, because of their importance. Let’s talk about weeds to love.
A. I always include some slides in my lecture that say: “Leave some weeds.”
Q. That’s a mandate.
A. Exactly. And this gets a little away from the native, because many of the weeds are not native, but it’s amazing how they are used by many different insects.
One that’s not native but comes to mind is clover—white clover. It’s a fantastic nectar source in the spring, but also the sulphur butterflies [below]—the little yellow ones that you’re starting to see fly now—they lay their eggs in leaves of clover.
One plant most people would consider a weed but is a native plant is stinging nettles.
A. It is. Some people this time of year they eat the new shoots.
A. I haven’t tried it; they’re supposed to be very tasty. Some of our most spectacular butterflies—the caterpillars of these butterflies feed on plants like stinging nettles. Things like red admiral, the question mark, the Eastern comma—those butterfly species look for stands of stinging nettles as a food source and a place to lay their eggs.
Most people would want to get rid of it because is you’ve ever brushed up against it…
Q. Stinging! [Laughter.]
A. You’d know it for about 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll be burning.
Q. This is what I do with jewelweed—another native “weed.”
A. Oh, yes, the hummingbirds love it.
Q. I will see some seedlings, and if they’re in an out-of-the-way spot, I mark it off and it’s not to be weeded.
A. Same here; my stand of stinging nettles is in the back corner, and I mow around it. I can get right up to it and watch the butterflies lay eggs, but it’s not bothering anyone, but it’s performing this wonderful service to these butterflies.
- Connect with Broken Arrow on Facebook
- Visit the Broken Arrow website (mail-order shopping resumes in September)
- Plan to visit Broken Arrow, in Hamden, Connecticut
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 11, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photo credits: Clovers, sulphur butterfly with asters, goldenrod-Joe pye field, caterpillar and clethra from Andy Brand. Spicebush swallowtail butterfly by Greg Hume, from Wikipedia. Jewelweed flower details from Wikipedia.)
I’ve been wondering if the riffs on a native plant, such as hybridized Echinacea, affect their helpfulness to butterflies, etc.?
I received as a gift the seeds for blue-stemmed goldenrod. I placed the seeds in a winter jug, outside in February of last year, and two plants grew. They flowered for the first time last summer. The number of insects was astounding and it was just one small patch of blossoms. I am growing more seeds this year and am also trying to root some tip cuttings in water to multiply the plant faster. The original plants are quite bushy right now and I have high hopes for this summer’s bloom, that is if we ever get some rain around here!
My fall asters, a more thuggish goldenrod and my very hardy mums always feature a veritable zoo of migrating, buzzing insects of all kinds, utterly fascinating. Flowers last long into the fall on the mums, as each color blooms in succession. Once I observed a horned beetle ambushing other bugs at this busy pit stop.
I also have a Clethra, but it is away from the areas I frequent and I will have to remember to check it out more often.
Please don’t casually promote quaking aspen! It is so incredibly invasive and there must be hundreds of more appropriate choices for any purpose. People need to know that it is an horrible choice anywhere you do not want a giant wad of aspen. I found this out the hard way because the property we bought here in Bonny Doon, California had some. Early on we discovered it’s difficult to impossible to control. We keep digging out shoots but they come back year after year. It is attracted to water so if you have a shallow water table, leech field or spring box that it can get into you will never get rid of it without poison.
Thanks, Blu, for your experience in California with it.
I garden differently now, and it’s all about providing nectar sources for honeybees and other pollinators.
I’m letting a roadside patch of goldenrod grow, as it’s very happy, but I’m also inclined to pull up spreading plants to control it a little bit.
Common milkweed is one of my favorite plants–so fragrant and important for Monarch butterflies. Despite my attempt to scatter seeds to encourage a ‘bed’, the milkweed has its own plans where it will grow, which says to me that I’m really just a servant, not the master of the garden & nature.